My daughter is a rule-follower, like her mother and father. Last week, seeing a big gathering of various parents and children in a local park, she said loudly and censoriously: “Well, that’s a rather large ‘family group’.”
What might she have made of the images that flooded social media in recent days, showing parks in towns and cities around the UK covered with the detritus of post-lockdown get-togethers? A lot of people would have been in for serious tellings-off by a judgemental 11-year-old. And rightly so, you might think.
Certainly, the photographs and videos of empty beer cans, discarded food wrappers, used barbecues and fluttering carrier bags are enough to cause a degree of despair about humanity. For every image that pops up on Twitter, there are a hundred incredulous replies that cannot fathom how so many people could apparently give so few hoots about creating such a mess.
What, it is reasonable to ask, do people who leave their rubbish lying around think will happen to it? At the most basic level, there must be an assumption that someone else will deal with it – council employees kept busy, or perhaps do-gooding litter-pickers. And no doubt that will indeed be the case, for the most part.
But some of the rubbish will be blown into undergrowth, or trees, or waterways, causing an environmental hazard. Broken glass and crushed cans will end up causing injuries to children and dogs. Rats will dance with delight, gorging themselves on the leftovers.
In any event, why should someone else be expected to deal with it? Every single person who left their trash on a park this week must have access to a bin, either at home, or a public one nearby. A bag of empty cans is a lot lighter to carry home than it was to bring to the park when the cans were full.
If you listen to Twitter, you will hear some angry commentators proclaim that all this is caused by a lack of morality, a symptom of falling standards among young people. That though, is the cri de coeur of every generation about those which follow. I’m not sure youthful deficiencies – or morals and decency more generally – can necessarily be measured by a discarded crisp packet.
However, I do wonder whether we are increasingly suffering from a collective failure of imagination; a product perhaps of our greater access to information being paradoxically a barrier to knowledge – or at least, a barrier to understanding where the limits of our knowledge or experience lie.
This isn’t to suggest that the failure only cuts one way. For those who litter, it might seem obvious: there is seemingly no thought about the individuals who will clear up the mess (whether employed to do so or working voluntarily); nor is there an appreciation of the genuine distress their actions cause to other people, especially in their own locality.
But empathy cannot be a one-way street. Many of those who have left rubbish in parks this week – young or not so young – have been unable to meet friends or family for months, causing serious anguish for some. They may have let their enthusiasm, and the rare appearance of warm weather, overwhelm their usual standards of behaviour. They may, on the other hand, live among chaos at home and therefore not see mess as problematic.
In case you are wondering, this is not an attempt to underplay or justify activity which would, I am sure, be thought anti-social by a large majority. But if any opinion (majority or otherwise) is to have credibility, it must seek to acknowledge alternative points of view, or understand contrary actions. And that maxim does not apply only to littering.
This may not currently be a fashionable position, and perhaps I’m deluded to imagine it ever was. Then again, social media has a tendency to amplify divisions: righteousness cuts through in a way that humility does not. Anonymity breeds contempt.
None of us is immune to an imagination failure. What’s more, imagination alone is not necessarily enough to prevent unkindness: sadism and empathy are not mutually exclusive after all. But for the sake of a more harmonious society, imagination and understanding are pretty good starting points.
Easter Day isn’t a bad time to begin a renewal of our efforts. And if that isn’t enough to stop you chucking your trash around, I’ll set my disapproving daughter on you.
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